Country singer Kenny Rogers will be joined by the Southwest High School Chorale and six singers from Chappell Elementary School for his holiday show Wednesday at the Weidner Center. / Submitted
Everybody likes to get home for the holidays, but few get to bring Kenny Rogers
Green Bay native Kelly Junkermann
rolls into town next week with The Gambler in tow — actually, vice versa, but who’s keeping track? — for the venerable country entertainer’s holiday show at the Weidner Center
That just happens to be 12-12-12, the designated Aaron Rodgers Day in the state, or as Kenny & Co. like to think of it: “Rodgers and Rogers Day.’’
It has been 10 years or more since Rogers’ annual Christmas tour has made it back to Green Bay. Junkermann, who has been producing it for the 31 years the star has been performing it, is especially excited to have the buses pull into the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
, the campus where he attended his first year of college.
The tour is making the long two-day haul up from Baton Rouge, La., which means band and crew will arrive and leave on the same day. Just enough time for Junkermann to grab a Kroll’s butter burger and some curds — his two must-haves whenever he gets back.
His primary focus, however, will be getting the show up and running through rehearsals with the Southwest High School Chorale
and six Chappell Elementary School
students who will perform with Rogers that night. Since Junkermann and Rogers created the holiday production, it has always included local children and choirs in each city.
“That is kind of the core of our show is that you see local kids and local choirs, so it’s exciting coming back to your hometown and using local kids and choirs,’’ said Junkermann, who originally started the tradition by asking his cousin in De Pere, a music teacher, if she might be able to line up choirs for each stop by calling fellow teachers. She did it that way for more than 20 years.
Now Junkermann often asks the venue and others in the city for a starting point to find the student performers. They are, he said, what keep quite possibly the longest-running holiday touring show feel fresh every night. They also keep Rogers and his special guest of recent years, country singer Billy Dean
, on their toes.
“They’re kids. You never know what can happen, because they rehearse it in the afternoon with me and then they go on with Kenny that night,’’ Junkermann said. “There’s staging. They have to move; they can’t just sit in one spot.
“Probably 75 percent of the time maybe they get it right. But just the other night, Billy and Kenny close the show with the six little kids on the stage with them and the whole choir and everything, and Billy and Kenny are supposed to step through the middle of them. They tap them on the shoulder and the kids move over. Well, the other night, they weren’t going to move. There was a tap, and then there was a tap, and they still didn’t move. And finally Kenny kind of squeezed his way through and that boy still didn’t move. That part of it is kind of fun every night.’’
Not just every entertainer would play the odds of working with children ages 6-10 up every evening, but the 74-year-old Rogers is, after all, the man behind the iconic country song “The Gambler.’’ So let’s just say he knows a thing or two about when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em and when to run. He also happens to have 8-year-old twins of his own.
In the early years, kids performed one simple song. Their role has since become a major part of the production. In Green Bay, Chappell third-grader Jevontae Allen-Brown will open the Christmas portion of the show by singing a solo.
Rogers begins the night by singing some of his classic hits, including “Lady,’’ “Islands in the Stream,’’ “Lucille,’’ “You Decorated My Life’’ and, obviously, “The Gambler.’’ The set and the music change for the holiday second half when the 50-student choir, child singers and Dean, who Junkermann describes as “just another big kid out there,’’ all join him.
The show has become a holiday tradition for Junkermann, who usually starts putting it together in July. Rehearsals start about 10 days before Thanksgiving and the tour bus doesn’t stop until Christmas Eve.
“I think we all look forward it,’’ Junkermann said. “I haven’t spent Thanksgiving at home in 25 years. We spend it out on the road. It’s Christmas for us every night. I think one of the reasons I keep doing it is I really look froward to the kids and the cities. ... Anytime you get a chance to go back to the Midwest you really feel Christmas.’’
Junkermann’s dad lives in Green Bay and his mother in Rhinelander, along with a brother and cousins in the Green Bay-De Pere area. With the tour on such a whirlwind schedule, Rogers’ head holiday elf hopes to get back to Northeastern Wisconsin after Christmas and enjoy time with family and hopefully some snow up north.
The only thing better than getting to return to his hometown this time of year would be returning for a Sunday night performance on a Sunday with a Green Bay Packers game at noon at Lambeau Field, Junkermann said. Perhaps something to put on his wish list for the nice man with the white beard — Mr. Rogers or Mr. Claus — next season.
What: Kenny Rogers Christmas & Hits Tour, with Billy Dean
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Weidner Center, UWGB
Tickets: $89.50-$55.50; Ticket Star outlets, (800) 895-0071 and www.ticketstaronline.com